|Paddle out for my brother Dan in Ormond Beach, Fla. Photo by Marcus Stephen.|
I sat in the front row next to Nancy, Dan's widow, and her children. My sisters and brothers and their kids surrounded us. A slide show portraying Dan's life played across the dual screens that flanked the altar/stage. I was raised Catholic, so the space at the front of any church is an altar. As a Catholic, of course, I can't sing, and am used to aging priests mumbling in English or, when I was a kid, in Latin. I still am startled when people play electric guitars in a place of worship.
Chris Breslin, one of Dan's nephews and a divinity school grad, conducted the service. He opened up with a prayer, followed by a rendition of "Danny Boy" piped in from the P.A. system.
Dan's eldest son Ryan spoke first.
I was next up, there to say a few words on behalf of my brothers and sisters. Here are those few words:
I'm Dan's older brother, Mike. I grew up in Daytona and now live in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Dan meant everything to his brothers and sisters. Let me name them: They are me, Molly, Eileen, Tommy, Timmy, Maureen and Mary. [I name them all and point them out to the crowd]. They all are here today except our brother Pat, who passed away three years ago. Dan and Pat are surfing together now.
One thing about Dan -- you could talk to him. Now I know what you're thinking, Dan could debate politics and religion and philosophy for hours. When I say "debate," I mean "argue."
But when you wanted someone to listen, really listen, Dan was your man. I'd call Dan and say I was going through a rough time and I could count on Dan to listen, really listen. I did that more than once, as did all of his brothers and sisters. It meant a lot to us.
Dan's house in Ormond Beach was the central gathering place. Back in the 1980s, Dan found a job as an air traffic controller in his home town of Daytona. It's a job he did for 25 years, 22 of those in Daytona and three in Fort Lauderdale.
His house on Putnam Avenue became the headquarters for all Shay activities. My brother Tim and sister Maureen had their 50th birthday parties there last summer. There were many other birthday parties, anniversary parties and those memorable Fourth of July parties. Our mom spent her last Fourth of July at Dan's house, arm and arm with our father, watching the fireworks from Dan's backyard. I was up on the roof with other party-goers watching them watch the fireworks.
Not that Dan was a homebody. My sister Mary says that when they were in Houston during Dan's treatment for leukemia, they traveled all over the place.
"We ate our way through Texas," Mary said.
Dan, Maureen and Mary took a memorable 12-hour jaunt from Houston to San Antonio to Austin and back to Houston. Family members traveled with Dan to the space center, submarine docks and lots of historic places. Molly went with Dan to Galveston. If Dan could have, and if there were any waves, Dan would have gone surfing.
All of us traveled with Dan one time or another. In 1988, Dan and I traveled with a Habitat for Humanity group to Nicaragua. That was during the Sandinista era and the Contra war was going on. We were sitting in a meeting one day hearing from the Sandinistas about how the country one day would be a tourist attraction and a surfing paradise. A uniformed officer came into the room and removed Dan. I was a bit concerned, as Dan was conservative and a big Reagan fan. Five minutes later, Dan returned to the room. After the meeting, I asked Dan what that was all about. He said they just wanted to know his name and where he was from and what he was doing in Nicaragua. He gave them the answers and that was it. I told him that we were worried that he was being dragged off to a Sandinista firing squad.
Dan, Nancy and the kids traveled all over. During my time with Dan last week, he told me many tales of journeying to Turkey, El Salvador, Germany, Peru, etc. If you want to hear details of these travels, talk to Nancy or Ryan or Connor or Bryce after the service. They have lots of adventure tales to tell.
As I said at the beginning, Dan meant everything to us. His departure leaves a hole in our lives.
But as he replied to our sister Eileen when she asked if he was afraid of dying: "What do I have to be afraid of?" That was his strong faith speaking.
We miss you, Dan. There's an old Roy Rogers song, "Happy Trails." I'll spare you my singing it. I'll leave you -- and Dan -- with a couple lines from the song. I've personalized it:
"Happy trails, Dan our brother,
Until we meet again."
Others rose to speak. A friend from high school. An accomplished blues musician who went to school with Dan and had some things to say about Dan's musicianship when he was a teen bass player. An air traffic controller buddy who now works in Germany and flew over for the service. A friend who surfed with Dan the last time he ventured out into the waves.
Elton John's "Daniel" played while the slideshow recounted more of Dan's life and times. "Daniel my brother...."
When the service concluded, we walked over to the Granada approach. Police directed traffic while we all crossed A1A. In the picnic shelter adjacent to the beach, U.S. Air Force personnel conducted a flag ceremony for Dan the veteran. Four civilian aircraft did a flyover in the "missing man" formation. We then went down to the sand for a paddle out. For those of you unfamiliar with that tradition, surfers climb into their wetsuits and paddle out beyond the break. They get in a circle for a prayer for Dan and then toss their carnations into the Atlantic. We waded into the surf and did the same from the shore. I felt the sand scrape the pads of my feet, the water swirl around my toes.
The red, white and pink carnations ebbed and flowed with the tide.